Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Um, if I throw you under the bus, is it, well, what it is?

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Whenever I can find any excuse to do so, I include George Orwell's classic essay "Politics and the English Language" on my course syllabi. (There is always a reason to do so.) In class discussion, I describe that essay as the most important essay ever written, and -- subject to obvious qualifications that this conclusion is both subjective and limited to the essays that I have actually read -- I mean it.

Most students initially think that they are back in grade school grammar class, seeing Orwell's criticisms of various samples of egregiously bad writing as bordering on priggishness. Some students move beyond that level of understanding and also take away from the essay important lessons in critical reading and listening, with Orwell making arguments about political manipulation of language that are familiar from his much better-known classics 1984 and Animal Farm. There is good reason that the term Orwellian is so potent. Few students, however, see the third and most important message in the essay: language can manipulate us as much as we can manipulate language. Orwell argues and demonstrates brilliantly that it is all too easy to say things that are either banal or actually misleading when (as too often happens) one is not thinking about the words one chooses and simply concatenates a series of words and phrases that are currently in popular usage.

The title of this posting captures a handful of the current grab-bag of words and phrases that seem to have become the best current examples of this kind of Orwellism. Their usage is not limited to any type of speaker or writer (academic, pundit, politician, person overheard at bus stop), nor to any political point of view. I have seen examples of these recently in Paul Krugman's columns as well as segments on Fox News. Our own Mike Dorf has used at least one of them recently on this blog, and I am painfully aware that I probably have defaulted to one or more of these (or to others that I have not yet noticed) in recent posts and comments. We can run, but we can't hide. The point, in fact, is that these things are so seductive because we see and hear them all the time.

In some cases, the problem is simply overuse. The first time I heard the phrase, "Stick a fork in 'em, 'cause they're done," it was both hilarious and evocative. That was twenty years ago. Although I don't know where "throw ____ under the bus" comes from, it also has the virtue of expressing something that is readily comprehensible; but its shelf life is, I hope, going to be much less than 20 years. Um, at least I can dream.

The more interesting cases are those where a phrase has a meaning that does not express what the speaker/writer is apparently trying to convey. Late in the first Bush presidency, the question for a few months became how to "jump-start the economy." The Orwellian moment (the verbal equivalent of "jumping the shark," I guess) was when an administration spokesman argued that we should jump-start the economy by doing nothing and allowing the markets to correct themselves. Whether that was the best policy decision is debatable, but the spokesman clearly meant to say that we shouldn't be jump-starting the economy at all. This is the current fate of "it is what it is," which has gone from meaning that there a some facts that we must accept to meaning, apparently, "I don't want to defend what I just said, so I'll say something that sounds jaded and profound." Um, it doesn't.

Thinking about issues of rhetoric in the popular context is, of necessity, to study a constantly moving target. It is not a matter of purity or being grammatically correct. I simply find it interesting to see these things evolve and, admittedly, often find myself grinding my teeth in frustration. I never understood where "keepin' it real" came from, but it quickly became an exquisitely empty phrase. Earlier this week, the tennis star Venus Williams gave it a nice Orwellian twist: "Let's keep it on the real real." I won't be surprised if that becomes the next, well, real thing.


C.E. Petit said...

As a sometime "Orwell scholar," I'd also suggest "Why I Write" as an essential essay — it's quite short, but it's also critical to lawyers in understanding that writing has multiple purposes.

David C. said...

Professor Buchanan,

In case you are interested, Eric Posner recently and harshly criticized Politics and the English Language on Slate's Convictions blog.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

Thanks to c.e. petit for recommending "Why I Write," which I had not yet read. Thanks also to david c. for pointing me to an opposing view over at Slate. It's notable that that piece only engages with the first two levels of Orwell's essay (grammar lessons, and deliberate manipulations of language) but does not say anything about the level that I discuss in my post today.

Paul said...

"(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which [sic] you are used to seeing in print."

Do any of your students point out that Orwell, in a writing about writing, fails to understand the difference between "that" and "which"?

Neil H. Buchanan said...

Do any of your students point out that Orwell, in a writing about writing, fails to understand the difference between "that" and "which"?

If the essay's central message were merely "don't make grammatical errors," the error that paul points out would be a big deal.

SBL said...

I do not want to hijack Neil's comment thread with a silly grammar discussion, because neither Orwell's nor Neil's point is a grammar point. But let's keep it on the real real: the belief in a stark distinction between "that" and "which" is relatively recent and relatively American. See, e.g., Fowler (1908) (giving examples of "mistakes" in this regard by De Quincey, Thackeray, Meredith, Burke, the London Times, the Spectator, et al.); Fowler 1965 ("Relation between 'that' and 'which.' What grammarians say should be has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the more modest of them realize; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes and dislikes. And yet the temptation to show how better use might have been made of the material to hand is sometimes irresistible. The English relatives, particularly as used by English rather American writers, offer such a temptation....Some there are who follow this principle now [i.e., writers some use "that" as defining and "which" as non-defining]; but it would be idle to pretend that it is the practice either of most or of the best writers....[T]he tendency in modern writing is for which to supersede that even in the functions for which t. is better fitted. On the other hand some writers seems deliberately to choose that, where most other people would use which, under the impression that its archaic sounds adds the grace of unusualness to their style.").


egarber said...

I'm in over my head here, as I'm not familiar with any of these essays. But I'll go ahead and "throw myself under the bus" with an observation that may not have anything to do with Neil's post:

Sometimes it seems to me that multiple -- and conflicting -- meanings battle for the conventional understanding of a term or phrase. As an example, consider "pro-life".

I just had a conversation the other day with a friend who was baffled when I told him I was both pro-choice AND pro-life. He told me that it didn't make any sense. I said something like this in reply:

"Sure it does. My wife and I have decided that we would never opt for an abortion, because we would choose to nurture that early human life form as our cherished creation. But amid all the controversy on the question of when a "person" exists under the constitution, we don't think it's the government's call."

He then said something like, "well, that's not pro-life then." I asked, "why the hell not?"

Anyway, it proves that "pro-life" has come to mean a particular political position, for no logical reason outside of the fact that a faction within the larger population fought for and (unfortunately) won ownership of the term. Of course, it's not quite that straightforward, since you could argue that the faction in question created the phrase and the subsequent ownership therefore makes sense. Still, nobody owns the word "life".

And for a bit of irony (or is it coincidence?), I'm on a bus right now typing this :)

egarber said...

A cleaner example of the battle I mentioned above might be a word like "patriotic". To some, it means supporting the president no matter what during war; to others, it requires scrutinzing his actions in order to hold him accountable to the people.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

To both sbl and egarber, I can only say, well, thanks. You obviously love America.

Sobek said...

" proves that 'pro-life' has come to mean a particular political position..."

Yes, and it is used because it is helpful for communication.

I had a co-worker who liked to talk politics, but I was frequently baffled by his assertions, especially when he used the terms "liberal" and "conservative." I would quibble with his definitions, and he would explain that the word "liberal" meant something different fifty years ago. I know that, but I'm not talking to someone fifty years ago, I'm talking to someone today, when it means something different.

I like the word "liberal" because it is useful to describe a people with certain general views. Some friends of mine have found the term offensive, both because Rush Limbaugh has made it a dirty word (why on earth do they care what Rush says?) and because it involves a bunch of assumptions about people. As to the latter point, it's true (some self-described liberals are fiercely anti-gun control, for example), but doesn't change the fact that it's used as a very general term, and is useful as such.

I find it refreshing that Prof. Dorf calls himself a liberal, because it's foolish to think the word is inherently insulting, and because it helps to orient new readers by conveying certain general information. A thoughtful reader (with the time and inclination) can then read this blog to discern the nuances of Prof. Dorf's liberalism, but everyone who knows he's a liberal starts with a helpful point of reference that facilitates conversation.